Assuming that you’ve had the financial ability, and the foresight, to hold back at least some of your favorite bottlings from several years ago in your own cellar, what has been your experience when you open them? How would you compare them in style and quality to the wines you’re making today? Any major changes worth noting? Any surprises? And what do you do typically do with these bottles, other than use them for educational purposes?
Rupert Symington, Symington Family Estates (Douro Valley, Portugal). As producers of some of the world’s slowest-aging wines, we have always had a policy of setting aside a number of bottles of vintage Port purely for curiosity. It is evident that there is quite a difference in style and a bit more bottle variation in many wines made before the 1970s, before electricity and modern winemaking technology had reached much of the Douro. However, despite the apparent lack of sophistication in winemaking back then, there are some amazing surprises such as the Dow 1896 and the Graham 1945, which remain lively and vigorous while their winemakers are long gone.
We regularly pull a cork or two for wine critics and trade customers to demonstrate the aging potential of great vintage Port, but the real value of keeping back these wines becomes apparent when we need to conduct a serious vertical tasting to mark a landmark event such as Dow’s 200th anniversary in 1998. After tasting some 20 vintages going back over a hundred years, some of the leading wine critics of the world had no doubts as to the vintage Port pedigree of Dow, nor as to the benefits of laying down vintage Port in terms of sheer tasting pleasure.
Brian Bicknell, Mahi Wines (Marlborough, New Zealand). I have mainly used them for my own education, sharing them with friends, fellow winemakers and visitors to the winery over meals. There have been a couple of really important lessons learned. The first is that tannin development works in a different way than I used to think. I had one pinot noir years ago that was beautiful in barrel and when it went to the bottle. As it was off relatively young vines I thought it would fall over within say eight years, but in a retrospective tasting in London many years later it was the star of the night, just showing that wines do not have to be ugly when young to be beautiful when old!
The other key thing learned on looking back at these bottles is that I wish I had started using screw caps earlier, as the variation caused by differing oxidation levels under cork has made the resultant tastings much less enjoyable.
Olivier Humbrecht, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht (Alsace, France). We never keep enough wines from great vineyards and great years. They are so much more interesting to taste/drink after some years: with friends, for master classes, for vertical tastings, sometimes for later releases (especially restaurants), and yes, also sometimes for charities.
There is a constant evolution for every decade since the ’60s, mostly due to the change of some practices (temperature control, whole cluster, lower yields, biodynamie…), so it is sometimes difficult to compare old vintages with modern vintages. One has always to put them back in the perspective of the time they were made.
Anthony Hamilton Russell, Hamilton Russell Vineyards (Hermanus, South Africa). On Hamilton Russell Vineyards we have routinely kept back between 15 and 30 cases of each vintage. When we built our new barrel cellar in 1992, I designed a special alcove area to store this wine library. We have used this library to great benefit for learning purposes and we routinely taste verticals of our wines. For our pinot noir in particular, the wines tell a clear story of clonal change: from the Swiss Champagne clone BK5 in the 1980s and first half of the 1990s to the four new Dijon selection clones we work with today. You can also taste how we have felt our way towards (and at times overshot) our present day “sweet spot” of physiological ripeness from the leaner wines of the past.
Although it does not surprise us anymore, it rarely fails to surprise visiting enthusiasts how well the oldest of the wines have aged. A recently tasted 1982 and 1983 (out of a magnum) were wonderful! Those leaner–even unripe–wines of the past can really show merit with significant bottle age.
We do all of the above, except that the only older wines we sell are specifically held back and packaged for this purpose. To celebrate our 30 years of pinot noir we recently released a vertical of five vintages (half a decade): 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009. In anticipation of this release I held back 200 cases of each vintage from 2005. And yes it really hurt financially! This is now selling extremely well at a slight premium and we are able to maintain our program of holding back wine for a half-decade vertical release every five years.
The vertical is packed in a wooden case and each wine has a selected South African artwork from my collection as a back label–a mix of older classic artists and modern. We liked the idea of an image (not only a number) to distinguish the vintages. We have sold very young pinot noir for so long, this vertical is a kind of penance. Our followers get to see the common thread of terroir, the individual personalities of the vintages, and the impact of bottle age.
Jeremy Seysses, Domaine Dujac (Burgundy, France) and Domaine de Triennes (Provence, France). Yes, we hold back some wine every year, from many, though not all, of our vineyards. We go back to the domain’s first good vintage, the second that my father made: 1969. Most of the wines have held well over time, though once past the age of 20 years, bottle variation becomes more of a factor. There have been some good surprises from unheralded vintages: magnums of Clos de la Roche 1974 really showed well in the mid-1990s, as did Morey Saint-Denis 1er Cru 1981. It’s also very interesting to just witness the aging curve of wines.
Predictions are really not obvious, but with experience, they are perhaps not altogether random. I have noticed that for many vintages, at around 10 years of age the wines can go through a phase where they taste older than they should and seem to be close to the end of their pleasure-giving days. A few years later, they find a second wind and taste younger. Once you pick up on the pattern, it is much easier to sleep at night.
Our stocks of old wine are for education, for hosting, and most importantly, they are an important form of insurance. If hail or frost, as in 2010, hits us hard, we can release some of the older stocks to keep the company going.
Josh Bergström, Bergström Wines (Oregon). We use our library wines for special dinners where we can show our clients and friends how our wines evolve over time and to make an event just a little bit more intriguing. We are always focused on selling current release wines, and to show people how Oregon pinot noirs and chardonnays evolve with 3, 5 or 8 years in the bottle is important.
What I have found the most surprising as I open some of our oldest wines is to see how my winemaking style has evolved over the years. Where my early vintages focused on power and were dark and bold and higher in tannin and alcohol content, my recent wines are focused on elegance, with balanced acidity and perfume and lower alcohol levels, while still trying to capture the concentrated fruit character that Oregon is known for. My feeling is that my wines from the 2007-2011 vintages will age much differently and potentially in a more graceful fashion than some of my earlier wines.
I still have a soft spot in my heart for my early wines, as they truly represent where my palate and taste preferences for wines were focused at that time, but now I am drinking different wines and thus making different wines as well. I guess it will be interesting to taste these wines 14 years from now and see if my style has continued to change as drastically as it has over the past 14 years.